Removing Lawn to Make Way for More Habitat

Photo © mellow cat

So, you’re interested in decreasing the size of your lawn. We can help. This article discusses several tried and true ways people remove lawn. From small patches to whole lawns–these techniques will get you started down the path to less lawn and more…pollinator flower beds? Trees? Shrubs? Veggie Garden? Your imagination is your only limit.

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Photo © Tyler Neu

While lawns perform some important ecosystem functions, like storing carbon and carrying out photosynthesis, they are biodiversity barrens. Previous research on lawns has shown they are amazingly similar in species composition and contribute to the homogenization of urban landscapes and loss of urban biodiversity.open_in_newopen_in_new They tend to consist of only one or two species of grass, dramatically limiting the potential wildlife they can support. And, since diversity begets diversity, the monolithic nature of lawns means fewer organisms can thrive there. Some birds, like American Robins, occasionally visit lawns; however, these heavily-mowed, often chemically-treated, water guzzling, homogeneous areas simply do not provide the elements of habitat needed for supporting the diversity of wildlife central to balanced ecological systems.

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Photo © Susy Morris

The good news is that you don’t need to banish your lawn entirely to introduce more diversity into your yard. There are many ways to live in peaceful coexistence. Lawns can be important throughways and play spaces. And, removing some lawn doesn’t have to mean giving up open space or beautiful views.


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But, sometimes we have a lot of lawn. Around 60% of the average yard in America is lawn. Often when you move to a new property, lawn is the landscape you inherit. Be mindful. Do you really use all that lawn to its fullest capacity? Or, can you commit to transforming even just a bit?

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Photo © charamelody, aptmetaphor, Nicholas Wang

Getting Started

We suggest asking yourself these where questions:

  • Where do people use your lawn for playing games?
  • Where do they use it for having outdoor dinners, stargazing, or relaxing?
  • Where are the natural paths you and your pets use to get from point A to point B?
  • Where is it important to have an open view?
  • lawn remove text

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    Once you narrow down the places where it makes sense to retain lawn, you’ll be able to recognize the places you can transform.

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    Photo © Jason Caroll

    Pick a Patch of Lawn and Say, “Goodbye.”

    Whether you are going to plant wildflowers in your newly reclaimed patch, a new tree, or some gorgeous perennial shrubs–you have to start by getting rid of the lawn. There are several low cost, chemical-free strategies you can employ, but all options either take some time or a bit of effort to complete.

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    Cover and Smoother. By far the laziest way to remove a patch of lawn is to take arborists’ wood chips, newspaper, or cardboard and cover the lawn depriving it of the light and oxygen it needs to grow.

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    Photo © beth h

    You can start the process at the beginning of the growing season by saturating the lawn with water to push out air and oxygen, laying the cardboard or wood chips (8 inches deep!). Once covered, the lawn is largely deprived of oxygen and light allowing anaerobic decomposition in the soil which breaks down not just the leaves, but the roots of the grass as well. After several weeks, if you’ve used cardboard, you may wish to pull up and dispose of the cardboard (some research finds cardboard attracts termites and other pests) and cover the now-dead grass with mulch (arborists’ wood chips will work quite well–you’ll only need 4-6 inches at this point). You can now plant other perennials, or annuals.

    On selecting mulch

    Generally, you should aim for wood chips. Other materials can work, but wood chips usually have the weight and acidity level to help create a nice “blank canvas.” Locally-sourced wood chips decrease the likelihood of introducing invasive insects like emerald ash borer that can wreak havoc in some ecosystems. Minimizing how far a wood product travels decreases the potential spread of eggs and larvae.

    Free wood chips taken from a community pile are likely composed of many different tree species since they are typically created when a chipper moves through town grinding up all kinds of trees planted over the years. Some of these trees might practice allelopathy (suppression of growth of one plant species by another due to the release of toxic substances) and others might be non-native. Many people prefer wood chips made from plants native to their area, but there isn’t a lot of experimental research linking success or failure of gardens with specific kinds of tree chip mulch. It is likely you don’t need to be overly concerned with the specific species of trees in your arborists’ mulch.

    Often you can source local tree care companies to make “free” deliveries of mulch. This depends on where you live and how much competition there is for wood chips, but it can be a significant cost-saver, especially if you are trying to kill lawn with only wood chips, since you need at least 8 inches to really smoother the lawn.

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    Photo © Joolie

    Solarize. This is another technique people use, but it does require a lot of plastic sheeting and doesn’t offer any advantages over the mulch technique, except speed. It typically only takes a week or two if you create a tight seal around the edges which is key for building up the heat necessary under the plastic to kill the grass. Clear plastic typically works best. If you do small sections at a time, you could get away with only using a small amount of plastic–reusing it as you move around to different locations.

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    Photo © Tracey Adams, Nom&Malc

    Dig and Replace. Lawns can also be dug out. If your goal is to install something other than plants, like a pathway or pervious patio, this might be the best way to go. Depending on the area you are removing, you might rent a bobcat, or do this by hand. Once the lawn is removed, you can fill back in the space with dirt for planting, decomposed granite for pathways, or raised beds for vegetable gardening.

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    Photo © Jennie Robinson Faber

    For those of you just starting out, you might consider removing just one small patch of lawn to create a new planting bed. Looking out at a massive lawn can make picking that patch feel overwhelming. So, here are some ideas, along with images, to showcase how others do it.

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    Photo © mwms1916

    Choose a corner. Pick a corner of your lawn to ‘cut off’ and turn into new planting beds. This is a great tactic for decreasing the size of a lawn, without breaking it up. The contoured corners also make mowing the remaining lawn less of a chore.

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    Photo © plant4wildlife

    Side yard. Choose an entire side of your property to convert. In many yards, the areas between the sides of the house and the edge of the property are narrow. This makes them ideal, manageable areas to convert.

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    Photo © anneheathen

    Borders. Another rule of thumb for creating new planting beds is to follow the natural lines of elements on your property–like the house, the sidewalks, or the driveway. In the image above, the owners are smothering lawn along their foundation and at the border of their property. Notice that the new beds don’t have straight edges. Curves are generally seen as more pleasing to the eye in landscaping.

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    I like to use a garden hose to map out new garden bed edges. The way they fall on the ground creates naturally rounded, nicely proportioned curves that create good looking shapes.

    Jacob Johnston, Habitat Network Staff

    Natural contours. This kind of bed can be a little harder to visualize, but as demonstrated above, this homeowner created a new bed that essentially follows the line created by changing elevation on the property. The new bed runs along the bottom of the slope towards their house, extending the width of the yard from the driveway to the edge of the property, tapering as it goes to create a nice organic shape. This new bed is going to serve triple duty for them by acting to slow stormwater coming down the slope and off of their driveway, and by providing privacy as the plants grow.

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    Photo © UC Davis Arboretum and Public Garden

    Medians. The spaces next to roads are often fantastic locations to remove lawns. This could be that “planting strip” between a sidewalk in front of your house and the road, or, as in the image above, the space between your driveway and your neighbors. These areas are rarely used for play, leisure, or as pathways making them less-than-ideal locations for lawns.

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    Photo © HN User

    Tree base. A way to dip your toes into removing just a small bit of lawn? Start at the base of any tree. Lots of people love the look of a bed around a tree trunk and it often makes sense given that it can be difficult to mow right up to the edge. Beware though, some tree species don’t play nicely with other plants–secreting chemicals that suppress their growth under their crowns. Some well-known tree species that employ this tactic include black walnut, sugar maple, hackberries, sycamore, cottonwood, black cherry, red oak, black locust, sassafras, and American elm–which all try to inhibit nearby competition. Shade, leaf/ needle fall can also be a factor under trees, but, there are many native plants available that will work even under these conditions.

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    Photo © plant4wildlife

    Planting along under a series of trees is another great way to define new planting beds.

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    Photo © Jim Linwood

    Free-floating organic shapes. Pleasing to the eye, these gardens are created by selecting any space in the middle of a sprawling lawn and outlining an organic, kidney-bean shaped bed. Planting a variety of native wildflowers will usually result in something very attractive.

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    Photo © eGuide Travel

    These are easy to tend since you can get at them from all sides and they can be as small . . .

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    Photo © plant4wildlife

    . . . or as large as you like. The beds in the two images above are a great example of the variety of shapes and sizes you can install, to give up a little lawn in favor of a diversity of plants.

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    Photo © City of Minneapolis Archive

    What to plant?

    One great way to get started, especially if you are starting small, is to focus on flowers. Specifically, those that will support pollinators. Even small new flower plantings will support a new diversity of native bee, pollinating fly, and butterfly species. Flowerbeds, especially those kept messy, native, and wild with some woody debris and bare ground, tend to have better results than less diverse spaces because they provide more nesting opportunities for native bees and more abundant, diverse, and continuous floral resources.open_in_new Check out these great resources to make decisions about what to plant in your new flower bed:

  • Intro to Pollinator Gardening
  • Native Flowerbeds
  • Your pollinator planting guide in the Habitat Network Local Resources Tool
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    Photo © Mathesont

    Whether you join a growing movement of people taking their first steps into pollinator gardening by picking a patch of lawn to remove or go all the way to zero like the person in the image above, knowing the mechanics of how to get started is critical for success. Feel free to ask any questions you might have about how to pick a patch, or get started smothering.

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    Photo © rcchirum

    And, if you’ve got a habitat map, we hope you’ll log-in to map your new missing lawn so we can admire it. Habitat Network tracks changes to your map so we can understand how people are changing their yards and other green spaces over time. Good luck, and don’t forget to post pictures of your lawn removal effort and outcome to your habitat map.